Transforming Schools: Alternative Perspectives on School Reform

reviewed by S. David Brazer - July 30, 2014

coverTitle: Transforming Schools: Alternative Perspectives on School Reform
Author(s): D. G. Mulcahy
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623961440, Pages: 192, Year: 2013
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Dialogue without good ideas is noisy and a waste of time. Good ideas without dialogue tend to get ignored. Transforming Schools: Alternative Perspectives on School Reform, a project of faculty members from the School of Education and Professional Studies at Central Connecticut State University, presents several ideas that are deeply engaging. I had trouble, however, finding consistent dialogue with the book’s ostensible adversaries.

After an efficient preface explaining that the book provides alternative interpretations of central challenges in public education that do not accept the assumptions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT), Chapters One and Four make the case that the whole discussion of improving education generated by NCLB is off track for two major reasons. The initial contention is that non-educators have co-opted the public education agenda and based their beliefs and arguments on false assumptions. Further invalidating major premises of NCLB, achievement gaps have far more to do with poverty than with school quality. In these chapters, the reader is exposed to good dialogue with dominant policy makers. Ronnie Cassella demonstrates in Chapter One that NCLB’s mechanistic approach to issues such as student achievement and teacher quality leads to fallacious conclusions about how to make education better. One of my favorite examples is that high test scores in K-12 schools do not translate to success in college, as the proponents of NCLB claim. Venezia, Kirst, and Antonio (2003) demonstrated several years ago that achieving content standards required by most states bore little relationship to developing the kind of skills, knowledge, and dispositions required to succeed in higher education. Thus, NCLB has motivated a system of state standards and assessments that do not adequately support the college preparation goals they purport to embody. (Whether this problem is changing with the advent of the Common Core State Standards remains to be seen.)

Chapter Four complements Chapter One as Jacob Werblow and Laura Longo explain that NCLB is misdirected not only because the main strategies are ineffective, but because they are working on the wrong problem. Werblow and Longo submit that instead of restricting curriculum and pounding on teachers to get better, the U.S. needs to address poverty as the number one cause of achievement gaps. With the chapter grounded solidly in research, these two authors make a persuasive argument that poverty is the root cause of poor student achievement and, if eradicated, would make the biggest difference in student assessment.

As much as I long to be in the cheering section for Cassella, Werblow, and Long, I’m not ready to join because I do not find adequate engagement with the other side. Reformers of the NCLB ilk are constantly irritated when educators strive to deflect blame from the education establishment by claiming that the real problems lay elsewhere. I don’t blame the NCLBers. I want to ask the authors of Chapters One and Four, How should schools—administrators, teachers, parents, and community members—adapt to the needs of impoverished students? Chapters Two, Three, Five, and Seven make the case, in varying degrees, for more effective schooling without addressing poverty or proponents of NCLB head on.

Cara Mulcahy in Chapter Two and James Joss French in Chapter Three operationalize the idea of transformational education in ways that are refreshing and inspiring. Yes, students can and should go beyond critique and be encouraged to act on their new perspectives. True to the legacy of Dewey, it is through action that students will learn and be transformed. French is even more ambitious in his advocacy for the teaching of a politico-economic model that is an alternative to capitalism. Working with teacher candidates instead of K-12 students, French demonstrates how although prospective teachers come to him with capitalist assumptions, they can learn that there are other attractive social arrangements, such as what he terms the “cultural commons.” Providing transformative experiences for school-age students and teachers who know how to help their students employ alternative perspectives may help break the bonds of NCLB and the testing regimes it has spawned. But I would like to know how these strategies are adaptive to students in poverty and how they trump the policy goals of NCLB.

Chapters Five and Seven move out of the central channel of standards and core subject learning by advocating for aesthetic education and learning-by-doing in non-traditional settings respectively. The impact of these chapters is, however, very different. Barbara Clark in Chapter Five presents remarkably moving examples of middle schools students’ creative writing responses to exemplary works of art from different cultures and time periods. This field-based research presents a compelling case for elevating the arts into core subject classrooms as a vehicle for understanding humanity and the individual’s place in it at a much deeper level then the didactic teaching compelled by high stakes testing ever could. Chapter Seven is equally intriguing at the outset because of the claim that deep learning can take place in a farm environment. Kurt Love’s literature base is so thin, however, it is difficult to know if the Sustainable Farm School has a compelling theory of action or is just another intriguing idea that might be compatible with some students’ learning preferences.

In order to be useful, the assessment of creative and effective teaching and learning must have multiple sources. This is the main contention of Jesse Turner, John Forshay, and Ernest Pasncofar in Chapter Six. They further claim that assessment would be more effective if teachers were involved in designing it because they understand the needs and nuances of their students. I agree in theory, but there is little evidence to support that this would be the case in practice. I ask the authors to examine whether teachers use multiple kinds of measurements that support student learning in their classrooms, whether they collect such data on a regular basis, and if they are adept at analyzing the results. I think they would be disappointed in most cases, not because of a lack of good intention, but because of a lack of expertise, time, and energy. Assessments that demonstrate the achievement of all students and support learning require more effort than placing teachers on committees.

Without being explicit about it, Chapter Eight answers the question, What are we trying to transform schools to do? The answer provided by Ellen Retelle and Mark Cohan is to foster social justice. Using their experiences as a principal and superintendent respectively, they analyze two personal cases of standing up and speaking out for social justice. They provide courageous, admirable examples to all educators.

The editor of this volume, D.G. Mulcahy, draws on themes from the previous chapters to make a compelling argument in Chapter Nine for combining academic and practical learning. Bravo, but how does such a strategy address the college-focused intent of NCLB?

If you are seeking a collection of interesting arguments and ideas, then I think you will find this book stimulating. I encourage the professors from Central Connecticut State to bring us the sequel that demonstrates how their counter-reformation ideas address the interests and aspirations of their NCLB-supporting opponents. Without that, there is a lack of dialogue and each side can simply dismiss the other. When Elliot Eisner (1973) aspired to refute the value of behavioral objectives over 40 years ago, he first did the best he could to make the case in favor of behavioral objectives. Then he went to work on his own best arguments. It seems a strategy worth considering to achieve meaningful discussion with the other side.


Eisner, E. (1973). Do behavioral objects and accountability have a place in art education? Art Education, 26(5), 2 – 5.

Venezia, A., Kirst, M., & Antonio, A. (2003). Betraying the college dream: How disconnected k – 12 and postsecondary education systems undermine student aspirations. Stanford University: The Bridge Project.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 30, 2014 ID Number: 17630, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 9:59:01 AM

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